The 'third sector': A sporting chance for volunteers

If you're at a loose end this weekend there is plenty of work to do. The problem is, you won't get paid for it. Week by week, 23 million Britons turn out to do voluntary work or raise funds for charities, to help at youth clubs and old people's homes, to sit on public bodies, to comfort the sick and dying. That's more people than are in paid employment; and though, for many, it is rewarding in itself, the work offers little by way of recompense.

This is Giving Britain at its best. However, the announcement that the chairman of the Arts Council will stand down next year to spend more time with his business partners has raised a crucial question: should the boss of an outfit that shells out some half a billion pounds of public money each year be paid to do the job properly?

Lord Gowrie is the epitome of all that is good about public service in Britain: urbane, intelligent, cultivated, community minded and decent. As a recent recruit to the Arts Council, I can vouch for the huge amount of time that he and its other members spend on the arts business. Yet he, like many others in his position, does the job without pay, and seemingly without strain; despite his Irish peerage, he almost defines the 19th- century English expression "languid". When first coined, this was not meant at the time to suggest laziness or indolence, but that a person was talented enough to perform well without apparent effort. The same might have been said about David Gower's batting or Muhammad Ali's boxing.

Yet even Gowrie, for all his talents, apparently has to make a living. For most of the 23 million who give their time for free, there is a cost. It may be in time spent away from work or family; it almost certainly involves taking care of money donated directly by the public or the Treasury. And here is the difference to the old days of old-style philanthropy. There is big money involved here.

Charities represent some 3 per cent of our GDP; they employ some 450,000 people, fully 2 per cent of the national workforce. They are part of our national fabric, and, along with the mushrooming growth of quangos, have provided an outlet for the British mania for do-gooding of all kinds. This is not new; it stretches back through the centuries. But in the past it has been possible to characterise this kind of voluntary activity as faintly ridiculous and irrelevant - even a bit potty.

In Bleak House, Dickens' Mrs Jellyby, a "rapacious benevolent", could have landed you picking coffee beans on the banks of the Niger at Borrioboola- Gha if you weren't careful. But as well as fear, such people inspire cynicism. Mrs Jellyby was "a lady of remarkable strength of character who devotes herself entirely to the public. She has devoted herself to an extensive variety of public subjects at various times and is at present devoted to the subject of Africa - until something else attracts her

However, the massive growth of the so-called "third sector" - the others being the public and private sector - has made all such sneering seem irrelevant. Vast areas of public expenditure are in the hands of gifted (and not-so-gifted) amateurs. The appointments to NHS Trusts are a case in point. The dispensation of billions of pounds of taxpayers' cash, the employment of hundreds of thousands of people and the health of the nation rest in the hands of a few hundred non-professionals. Even more spectacularly, the tens of billions raised by the Lottery will, in theory, be in the hands of the voluntary bodies that run the Sports Council, Arts Council and so forth; by my reckoning over the next three or four years each quango member will give away an average of nearly pounds 100m.

Do we really want to give this kind of power to Mrs Jellyby? Actually, yes; the great virtue of this way of working is that it disperses power away from the iron grip of national government, and potentially weakens the baleful influence of party politics on these great areas of policy. And not all those who currently give their time are Mrs Jellybys - many that I've worked with are talented individuals with a conscience and time to spare. Yet, typically, those who run quangos and big charities are male, white, and elderly. Where they are not, it is because they are independently wealthy, or women with husbands able to free them from the need to work.

Being the chairman of a quango, The London Arts Board, currently trying to find suitable new members, I can say how hard it is to find people who don't just feel like "more of the same". Few of us in the midst of careers have the opportunity to serve, however much we would like to; still fewer who are not well-off can even consider giving the time. Even those of us with decent jobs can expect a raised eyebrow from hard-pressed colleagues when we leave early to attend a meeting that is nothing to with the business. The range of public services provided by the third sector is now too great either to privatise or nationalise; so how do we make it work?

Some companies, recognising that the experience of helping to run a voluntary organisation adds to the ability of their employees take a relaxed attitude to time spent in such activities; a few even encourage it. But sooner or later someone is going to make a hard choice.

To do the job properly, the value of such activity will have to be recognised by the Chancellor. He could consider tax breaks for companies which give their employees time off for voluntary activity. He could find ways of providing career breaks to run charities or arts organisations possible. He could even think about offering extra incentives for the long-term unemployed to take up opportunities in the voluntary sector.

Of course, we will end up paying people for serving on public bodies, but this is the only sensible course of action if we want to ensure that our quangos are in any way representative. A little farther down the line, we will also have to think seriously about paying reasonable sums to local councillors responsible for bigger organisations than many FTSE 100 chairmen. Only then will we get the effective management of public resources we want. And, yes, I might one day see a bob or two myself. But at least you will be entitled to expect your money's worth from me.